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Taking a stand: Students recognized for promoting social justice

Isabella Costello, 17, of Bay Shore, drew inspiration

Isabella Costello, 17, of Bay Shore, drew inspiration from her brother Matthew Costello, 14. Credit: Chris Ware

What makes someone an upstander? “It’s a leader or someone who stands up for people who have trouble standing up for themselves,” said Isabella Costello. Her definition is spot-on — and she’s describing herself, along with fellow teenagers Avery DeNatale, Hadeeqa Malik and Sean O’Toole.

The fantastic four are this year’s winners of the 10th annual Friedlander Upstander Award, which honors Long Island students who confront social injustice. When upstanders see something, they do something. Simply sitting by isn’t how they roll.

Presented by the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County in conjunction with Nassau and Suffolk counties’ police departments, the award comes with a $5,000 scholarship. Prizes are funded by a $20,000 grant from The Claire Friedlander Family Foundation, named for a now-deceased Holocaust survivor.

Award winners were chosen through their essays describing personal efforts to be upstanders. “Each essay is inspiring,” said foundation president Peter J. Klein, 55, who lives in Huntington. “Kids are in a social Petri dish. For these four to stand up and push back against the herd is heroic in every way.”

Steven Markowitz, the HMTC chairman who is leaving that post Aug. 31, concurs. “They showed unusual compassion and guts in these tense and difficult times. The message they send is about caring for each other, and that’s what we teach at the center,” he said. “It helps restore your faith.”

Plans are set to present the awards virtually in September. Meanwhile, each upstander deserves a standing ovation.

PUSHING FOR UNDERSTANDING AND EQUALITY

Life brings challenges. Isabella Costello, 17, a junior at Bay Shore High School, has had more than her fair share of them.

One of 14 adopted siblings with special needs, Costello was born with bilateral hearing loss as well as with a rare heart defect involving connections of major arteries. She had had two surgeries by the time she was a week old. She was fed by a tube until she was 2.

“I eat everything now,” she said. She wears hearing aids and reads lips to communicate.

“Through my adversities I have learned to overcome anything that may interfere with my success,” she said. “I have also learned to push for success in others’ lives.”

That includes her brother Matthew, a ninth grader this year at Bay Shore high.

Matthew has Moebius syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that causes facial paralysis and the inability to move eyes side-to-side. He has difficulties communicating and prosthetic feet and just a few fingers.

“He looks a little different but he’s a very, very sweet boy,” said Costello, who’s made sure that students, faculty and other staff at the high school appreciated her brother.

“I don’t judge people based on their looks. I would hope people do the same for me,” she said. “I wanted them to respect him because he’s going to be coming to a new school.”

Inspired by a global awareness and education for Moebius syndrome that falls on Jan. 24, Costello brought the message of acceptance and understanding to her hometown. She produced and presented slideshows, talks and handouts — even pencils with Matthew’s name on them — to help staff, students and faculty get to know her brother. She urged people to wear purple, a color of support for the syndrome.

She was thrilled and surprised by the show of support. “Some people may not understand Matt right away,” she said. “But I wanted them to know he’s equal to all of us.”

Equality matters in her family of 17 children, which include her parents’ three biological children. Some of her older siblings with kids of their own are special-education teachers. They’ve inspired her career goal of being an educator.

Gloria Costello, 64, says compassion and dependability are two of her daughter Isabella’s defining characteristics. “Give teens a chance and they'll get right in there and help. Given the opportunity, they’ll rise.”

Isabella Costello, who loves reading biographies, journaled during her summer school break about social issues including how curbing the spread of COVID-19 is a community effort.

“We need to protect ourselves and we need to protect others,” she wrote in a post she shared with Newsday. “Don’t be self-centered, do what you think is best for those around you.”

That’s the story of Isabella Costello’s life.

IMPROVING THE WORLD WITH KINDNESS

Avery DeNatale, 18, strongly believes in the power of compassion.

“I have dedicated myself to spreading kindness in my community,” she said. That includes volunteering at Locust Valley High School, where she graduated in the class of 2020, as well as nursing homes and hospitals.

“It’s been an amazing experience to get to know others. I love working with younger children,” said DeNatale, who has two younger siblings.

In addition to leading food, clothing and blood drives at school, she launched an enrichment seminar in six different elementary schools. The fashion-oriented program gave kids a place to let their imaginative sides run free while creating headbands and T-shirts.

Holly DeNatale, a former equity sales trader, marvels at her daughter’s altruism. “Avery has always excelled working with younger kids,” she said. “She loved working on this program because it culminated with a fashion show. Shy girls were excited to participate.”

“Expressing oneself builds self-esteem and confidence,” said Avery DeNatale, whose most game-changing experience came through participating in the school’s Life Skills program. It helps special-needs kids master daily skills — food shopping, getting dressed, washing clothes — everyday activities most people take for granted.

“It began when I was in 10th grade. Working with nonverbal autistic kids was outside my comfort zone,” DeNatale said. “I was nervous.”

DeNatale settled down when one Life Skills student, a 10-year-old girl, reached out to her. She “grabbed my hand the first time I met her. The butterflies went away. People could learn a lot from that simple gesture of kindness.”

The take-away for DeNatale, she said, is that “you never know who you’re going to reach by putting yourself out there and stepping out of your comfort zone.”

That’s not easy, of course. DeNatale recognizes that people’s differences — the way they look, what they can do, what they believe in — can be barriers.

“In this day and age it takes courage because people are so worried about their appearance and what others will think about them,” she said. She’s hopeful that one day society will “see past differences in religions, races and genders.”

Now at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, she’s studying to be an elementary school teacher. In her essay, she wrote: “I want to be able to reach children before society’s prejudice consumes them.”

That’s the power of educators. DeNatale is still inspired by her first- and third-grade teacher’s unfailing faith in her abilities. “That belief goes a long way,” she said.

Just like kindness.

FIGHTING PREJUDICE ONE STEP AT A TIME

Hadeeqa Malik, 16, a junior at Half Hollow Hills High School West, says she knows what it’s like “not to be celebrated” for who she is.

As a Pakistani American growing up in mostly white neighborhoods, she’s been there and experienced that. In addition, she wrote that she was “was already internally conflicted with my culture due to its patriarchal expression.”

“Now I’m very vocal about my opinions,” said Malik, whose burgeoning self-confidence and trust in her morals and beliefs has enabled her to rise up against unfairness and injustice. “I try to speak up for people who don’t speak up for themselves,” she said.

She’s been an advocate through her participation in Girl Scouts, women-empowerment groups and as a peer AIDS adviser where discussions about safe sex aren’t always easy. “There can be uncomfortable conversations, but they are necessary talks to have,” she said.

Her advocacy has shone through as a junior board member in the Sophia Valsamos Foundation, an anti-bullying group established for a close friend of Malik’s who took her own life at age 13. Malik describes the suicide as a wake-up call.

“I had to be a better ally in my community. It means a lot to me when I can make a difference in someone’s life,” said Malik, who loves social studies and envisions a career in human rights. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx/Queens) is one of her heroes. “She is strong,” said Malik. “She speaks her mind. I admire that.”

A middle child with a brother in college and a sister in eighth grade, Malik shares those traits, says her mother. “Hadeeqa is very clear and very direct. She wants to know why things are the way they are,” said Nighat Malik, 45, who works at Northwell Health System. “Sometimes answers are not clear, so she’ll dig deeper. She is an advocate for those who are silent. She’s there to listen — and to take action. She helps find resources.”

Malik is proud of being recognized by faculty as a peer ambassador. “It means a lot to me,” she said. “Teachers see me as a good friend. If I see something I will get involved.”

Acknowledging and celebrating “what makes us unique and different” is essential, Malik wrote in her essay.

“There is a lot we need to talk about right now with the virus, Black Lives Matter and Islamophobia,” she said. “What I hope we can do is start and have these conversations. If it’s one person’s problem, it’s everyone’s problem.”

She sums it up simply: “We are all in this together.”

TACKLING EQUITY IN THE GAME OF LIFE

Being a leader goes with the territory when you’re the quarterback.

Sean O’Toole, 18, a 2020 graduate of Oyster Bay High School now studying engineering at Syracuse University, took that responsibility beyond the football field.

O’Toole has loved and played football “practically from the time I was born,” he said. Appointed the QB of the varsity team as a sophomore, he regarded the unity of a gridiron team as “a bond so strong it does not see social status, economic standing, and it definitely does not see race.”

But O’Toole perceived that two of his teammates of different ethnic backgrounds were being treated dissimilarly, he wrote. Despite their hard work, he explained, they wouldn’t get the call to score.

“In Oyster Bay there aren’t many minorities on our team. It couldn’t go unnoticed,” said O’Toole, who took his concerns to his father, who with other parents spoke to the Board of Education. All that went down at the end of O’Toole’s junior year at Oyster Bay high, and a staffing change was made for his senior year.

Being an upstander puts you in line for blowback. “It took a long time to work up the courage to speak out,” said O’Toole. “My parents have always taught me to show compassion toward others. They’ve taught me about knowing what’s right. A good moral compass is an important thing to have.”

In his essay, O’Toole wrote that “a true upstander will stick out his neck for the team and stand up for what is right even if it means defying a person who is in power. I believe sticking up for the rights and safety of others should always be our first priority as citizens.”

Sean O’Toole, 50, a lawyer, marvels at his son’s “levelheadedness and the way he confronts adverse situations. He’s steadfast. When one person says something, others feel it’s OK to speak,” he added. “When one person stands up, others feel compelled to rise. It becomes bigger than one person.”

That’s what being on a team — football or the game of life — is all about, if you ask the teenage O’Toole.

“Always look to help someone who needs it, and ask for help when you do,” he said. “Nobody’s alone in this world.”

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